For a prequel to this article, please go here.
In 1985 my father died. Shortly afterward, immersed in the kinds of thoughts that follow a parent’s death, I went to India as a tourist. Before I left I asked my girlfriend for advice about which places to visit, since she had been to India a few years earlier. Without hesitation she replied, “Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it will be one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever see.” She chuckled at her non-answer — she had an endearing way of being amused by ordinary things — and went on to explain that the temple was old and huge and filled with thousands of people. “You’ll see the kind of deep religious feeling that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. That kind of conviction vanished from the West hundreds of years ago, but you can still see it in India. Trust me, it will be one of the most amazing things you’ll ever experience.”
Neither my girlfriend or I were interested in Hinduism. In retrospect it seems strange that she herself had gone to Meenakshi Temple. It wasn’t a common destination for Western tourists at that time.
A few weeks later a rickshaw driver dropped me off outside the gate of Meenakshi Temple. I walked inside and quickly slipped into an unusual state of consciousness. I later told friends that I felt like I was on drugs.
My memory of the next six hours is distorted and patchy. As I look now at photos and maps of the temple I see that it has outdoor terraces and a pond but I don’t remember them. In my memory the entire temple was enclosed and dark like an artificial cave of ancient stone. Throngs of people moved slowly through the shadowy halls, their eyes flashing white in the darkness.
Shrines and alcoves opened off the main corridors, their entrances protected by metal grates and signs that said “Hindus only past this point” or words to that effect. At one shrine a long line of people waited to enter. I was taller than almost everyone else and could look over their heads through the doorway. Inside was a group of priests, naked to the waist and glistening with sweat, performing a ceremony. Light from their fires, shining on their gold utensils and red and orange flowers, was visible through the doorway. Disregarding the sign, I joined the line.
This was out of character for me. I usually respect people’s customs when I travel in foreign countries, especially religious customs. Moreover I’m shy and fearful of being embarrassed, and I avoid situations where I’m likely to be socially awkward. Everyone could see or at least presume that I wasn’t a Hindu; I looked very different from everybody else there.
I didn’t think about any of this. My body seemed to be acting on its own.
Nobody said a word to me. I thought that nobody even looked at me, although now as I examine the photos I took that day, I see people staring at me.
The line moved forward until I found myself in front of a priest who was, I think, pouring something over a lingam. The priests treated me like everyone else but I don’t remember what they did. I think one of them put vibhuti on my forehead, and I think I was conscious of it being there for hours afterward while I walked around the dark cavernous spaces, but my memory of that day is so fragmented and distorted that I don’t really know.
After that I wandered around the temple for hours. My memories are fragmentary. I remember standing in a room with many small sculptures. Maybe this was the room with the statues of the 63 Tamil saints that Ramana mentions. Of course I had never heard of Ramana then. I also remember climbing the south gopuram or gate tower of the temple. This gopuram is the one that’s visible from Ramana’s house. A tiny stairway, so small that it seemed more like a tunnel than a stairway, zigzagged up to the roof 170 feet above the ground. I’ve been told that visitors are no longer allowed up there because it’s too dangerous. There was no guard rail, the roof was very narrow, and the surface sloped so rain and possibly tourists would slide off easily. There were so many foolhardy young men up there, including me, that we were in danger of accidentally knocking each other off.
About a year after I wrote this article, I remembered that after I got back to the hotel, I cancelled my flight out of Madurai so I could remain in town a second day and return to the temple. It was on that second day that I climbed to the roof. This article should have been named “My Two Days at Meenakshi Amman Temple.”
Here are some photos I took inside the temple.